Credited with revitalising the '80s Californian punk scene with their melodic and intelligent brand of hardcore punk, Bad Religion formed in 1980 in a suburban district of LA's San Fernando Valley. Originally featuring vocalist Greg Graffin, guitarist Brett Gurewitz, bassist Jay Bentley and drummer Jay Ziskrout - all pupils at El Camino Real High School - the group would develop into the bridge between the rudimentary hardcore of Black Flag/Circle Jerks and the melodic pop-punk served up by younger Californian acts Green Day, The Offspring and more.
Bad Religion’s own punk rock is rooted in the Californian sound; breakneck hardcore featuring their trademark melodic and much-imitated ‘oozin’ ahhs’ harmonies. But where SoCal pop-punk pioneers the Descendents sang about farting and food, Bad Religion focussed on societal ills, driven by their progressive outlook and secular humanism, with their 1982 debut How Can Hell be Any Worse? informed by the articulate lyricism of both the literary Gurewitz, and the scholarly Graffin. The latter is Bad Religion’s sole continuous member, an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate in zoology who juggles his commitment to the band with his career in academia, teaching natural sciences at UCLA then Cornell University.
Gurewitz too has responsibilities outside the band. In 1980, Bad Religion's guitarist founded Epitaph Records with a $1500 loan from his father in order to document the group’s debut 1981 self-titled EP. By the end of the '90s, following landmark releases from The Offspring, Rancid, NOFX – and Bad Religion themselves – Epitaph had become the world’s biggest independent punk rock record label, and one of the top global independent record labels. In 1994, the band’s mounting popularity led them to sign with major label Atlantic while their founding guitarist left to concentrate on his business, but Gurewitz returned in 2001 – albeit as a non-touring member - as Bad Religion returned home.
It's been quite a journey for the Californian high school buddies: here's our deep dive into the Bad Religion catalogue, ranked worst to best.
18. Christmas Songs (2013)
For an atheist band whose two main songwriters are humanists, releasing an album of Christmas carols recorded as frantic punk rock seems like an ironic joke that got out of hand. Wasn't this the same band who once called religion "synthetic frippery" (God Song)?
There was, at least, some qualifying back story here: in his youth, Greg Graffin was a member of his school choir, whose vocal techniques were exercised on both festive carols and ’70s pop. This one time, at music camp, he was even selected as a soloist, apparently. This grounding would prove invaluable in later years for the singer: Bad Religion’s harmonies set them apart from their peers, evoking that distinctive Californian Beach Boys sound, albeit through the filter of punk rock.
With this said, that's no reason to give Christmas Songs more than the tiniest sliver of your precious time on earth. When its high point is White Christmas reworked to the tune of the Ramones I Wanna Be Sedated, you know it's a vaguely amusing diversion at best.
17. No Substance (1998)
Every few albums, Bad Religion evolves and matures their sound – most notably, up to this point, on Suffer, Against The Grain and The Gray Race. But the highly-anticipated follow-up to The Gray Race sounds flabby and formulaic by comparison to previous releases.
One new twist saw Die Toten Hosen vocalist Campinos perform guest vocals on Raise Your Voice! - Bad Religion are huge in Germany - but unfortunately it’s the band’s most uninspiring protest song. Aside from crowd-pleasing airings of Raise Your Voice! in Germany, the fact that nothing from Bad Religion's tenth album makes regular appearances in the group's 20-plus songs setlist in this decade tells its own story.
16. Into The Unknown (1983)
It's fair to say that no-one in the SoCal punk rock scene saw this, an experimental venture into psychedelic prog, coming.
“I was heavily into LSD, but that’s no excuse,” Brett Gurewitz told author Steven Blush in American Hardcore. “It was the punkest thing we could do at the time. It was what everyone didn’t want us to do, and we didn’t care.”
Before they discovered punk, both Gurewitz and Greg Graffin were prog fans: Graffin is an unashamed Jethro Tull fan, and he and Gurewitz rate the likes of ELP and King Crimson (in fact Epitaph Records took its name from the lyric in Epitaph by King Crimson: “Confusion will be my epitaph”). Knowing this, and recalling the growing use of synths amongst the likes of Joy Division in the early '80s post-punk scene, one can better understand why Into The Unknown exists.
But following the goodwill and popularity Bad Religion had garnered with their 1982 debut album How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, they were blindsided by the apocalyptic hatred that Into the Unknown received from every corner of the punk scene, a key factor in the band temporarily dissolving in the wake of its release. Happily, they regrouped in 1985 with the appropriately-titled punk rock Back To The Known EP, lessons having been learned.
15. The New America (2000)
Bad Religion’s final album for Atlantic was a mixed affair, and not an enormous improvement on No Substance. It was produced by Todd Rundgren – a long-time hero to Greg Graffin – who insisted that the band record at his less-than-state-of-the-art facility in Hawaii. Which sounds idyllic in theory, but the Utopia singer-songwriter didn’t gel with the band and was described as difficult to work with.
It was a disappointing start to the millennium: even Bad Religion’s number one fan, NOFX’s Fat Mike, was reportedly unimpressed. There was, however, one tantalising treat for the faithful, with Brett Gurewitz and Graffin reuniting for the composition of the album's standout track, the anthemic Believe It. When Bad Religion returned to the studio to make their 12th album, Gurewitz was back in the fold, and Epitaph was waiting with open arms.
14. Recipe For Hate (1993)
Bad Religion's seventh album, and their last on Epitaph (for nine years), is a curate’s egg, angrier but more downbeat than Generator and the subsequent Stranger Than Fiction. The band’s first ever single, the darkly menacing American Jesus (featuring Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on backing vocals) takes aim at GW Bush’s crusading hegemony, while the uneasy singalong of Skyscraper remains a fan favourite.
Throughout their career, Bad Religion have constantly wavered and blurred the lines between punk rock and alt. rock (or even indie rock), and Recipe For Hate saw them closer to the latter than they’d been before, but without light relieving the dark of earlier releases.
13. The Gray Race (1996)
Following Brett Gurewitz’s departure, Bad Religion's major label debut benefited from the fresh blood of respected punk rock guitar aficionado Brian Baker (previously of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, and others). Baker was an ideal fit for the band's new era, and quickly became involved with co-songwriting to relieve the pressure on Graffin.
The urgency of the title track, Them and Us and Punk Rock Song are enhanced by the new man's incredible but restrained guitar work, and produced by Cars legend Ric Ocasek who completely understood the band, The Gray Race is easily the best of the band’s studio albums with Atlantic.
12. Stranger Than Fiction (1994)
It should have been celebratory, but the recording sessions for the band’s major label debut were fraught with tension and infighting. Gurewitz and Graffin contributed seven tracks each, but in an early indication that life at Atlantic might throw up challenges unheard of at Epitaph, the label asked the band to re-record 21st Century Digital Boy from Against The Grain as an introductory single in preference to Gurewitz's Infected.
While not your typical Bad Religion album, Stranger Than Fiction is an impressive work, albeit one which doesn’t gel as a whole like so many of the band’s earlier works: a cameo from Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg on the old-school Marked works a treat, but Rancid’s Tim Armstrong popping up on the hectic Television is less effective, his vocal delivery at odds with Graffin's approach.
There was, however, a bigger story emerging in 1994, with punk rock finally breaking into the mainstream. While Atlantic released Stranger than Fiction, Epitaph put out the (un)holy trinity of The Offspring’s Smash, NOFX’s Punk in Drublic and Rancid’s Let’s Go, and Green Day hit paydirt with their major label debut, Dookie. Stranger Than Fiction remains the band's biggest commercial success, but many wondered at the time whether Bad Religion were getting left behind by their younger counterparts in the same way they had eclipsed the likes of Circle Jerks.
11. The Dissent Of Man (2010)
Thanks to the positive reception which greeted 2007's New Maps of Hell, producer Joe Barresi was retained for follow-up The Dissent of Man (a play on Darwin’s The Descent of Man, evolutionary theory fans). With a running time of 43 minutes, it’s Bad Religion’s longest album to date, and there's much to like.
“Do you remember when we were young and the future had no end?” Graffin asks in the intro to opener The Day the Earth Stalled, leading into the album’s overall reflective theme. Cyanide is tinted with an Americana/country indie rock vibe, reminiscent of the singer’s solo work, The Devil In Stitches is reminiscent of 21st Century Digital Boy and the joyous Wrong Way Kids is good fun, a heart-warming ode to punk rock, with a cute video to match, charting Bad Religion’s entire 30-year career up to 2010 inside three minutes.
10. New Maps Of Hell (2007)
The third album in the trilogy of Bad Religion’s ‘00s post-Atlantic return to form on Epitaph was the band’s first set produced by Joe Barresi, noted for his work at the heavier end of punk, but also a heavy metal helmsman. As such, New Maps of Hell demonstrates a fuller, chunkier but rawer sound compared to the two previous albums.
Aesthetically, it harks back to debut How Could Hell be Any Worse?, not just in the sleeve artwork, but the no-nonsense urgency of the sinister 52 Seconds through to the gothic-sounding fan favourite New Dark Ages. The mood is lifted though by Honest Goodbye, the lead-off single despite its slightly cheesy lighters-aloft rock style woah-ohing.
9. The Empire Strikes First (2004)
As the title suggests, The Empire Strikes First was a furious reaction against the USA’s invasion of Iraq following 9/11. The sombre Overture dissolves into the livid Sinister Rouge, replete with a raging tempo reminiscent of the No Control era, with its attendant choral harmonies.
But while TESF was primarily a reaction to the questionable foreign policy of the White House’s administration, it’s not a helpless affair. Los Angeles Is Burning is gloriously evocative of the California sunshine of Suffer; a touching singalong that harks back to the debut with the lyric “More a question than a curse; how could hell be any worse?” It’s easy to forget the song is lamenting the escalation of California wildfires wrought by climate change.
8. Generator (1992)
With Bobby Schayer taking over from Pete Finestone behind the traps, the Bad Religion sound evolved and matured noticeably further from Against The Grain: the late '80s two-minute blasts ow nbecame songs around the three minute mark.
Generator kicks off with Brett Gurewitz’s philosophical title track, and the remarkable hook-heavy singalong of Atomic Garden (which would be showcased by the band's first video, shot by their pal Gore 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Verbinski), the metaphorical lyrics belying the seriousness of the subject of nuclear proliferation. Similarly, the enjoyably upbeat Fertile Crescent compares the Middle East’s historic Eden-like food basket with what by the early '90s had become synonymous as a battleground for superpower proxy theatre wars and the associated destruction of the natural environment. Punk rock had come a long way from Blitzkrieg Bop.
7. True North (2013)
Stylistically, True North sounds as if it could have been made in between No Control and Against the Grain. With the speed and urgency of late '80s Bad Religion and the compositional structure of their later material, it dials back the heaviness of the two previous albums produced by Joe Barresi. He’s still on hand here, but Graffin and Gurewitz co-produced in order to rediscover that Bad Religion sweet spot in the centre of the melodic hardcore/punk/indie/alt rock/metal Venn diagram.
After recruiting fans from across the board with their increasingly diverse and even occasionally mainstream sound, Bad Religion were back to what they did best: urgent, driving and relentlessly righteous punk rock. In their homeland, the album peaked at number 19 on the Billboard chart, the group's highest ever US chart position.
6. Age of Unreason (2019)
The six years between True North and the group's latest album to date was the longest dry period in Bad Religion’s career. But Age of Unreason was worth the wait.
Produced by Grammy-winning wunderkind Carlos de la Garza – best known for his indie and reggae production skills, from Paramore to Ziggy Marley - it features another new BR line-up, with Mike Dimkich replacing long-serving guitarist Greg Hetson and Jamie Miller replacing the Avenged Sevenfold-bound Brooks Wackerman.
Something of a conceptual work, preceded by non-album single The Kids Are Alt-Right, the album was influenced by the collective global anxiety over America’s Trump era. My Candidate is a standout, along with Old Regime, while affecting closer What Tomorrow Brings showcases Bad Religion at the top of their game, four decades into their storied career.
5. Against The Grain (1990)
After the one-two punch of Suffer and No Control, both Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz were keen on evolving the Bad Religion sound, without falling into another potential Into The Unknown black hole.
The last album with drummer Pete Finestone and the final chapter of a trilogy alongside Suffer and No Control, Against The Grain is a slower but more assured record, if every bit as confrontational as its predecessor. Gurewitz’s 21st Century Digital Boy remains a favourite to this day (especially for NOFX’s Fat Mike who contributed live backing vocals when both bands did Warped Tour): despite the title referencing King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, it’s closer to pop than prog.
4. How Could Hell Be Any Worse? (1982)
Bad Religion's debut album quickly set the band apart from their early '80s hardcore peers with its erudite themes and lyrical content. Musically, the album follows the era’s hardcore punk template - a low-fi, rudimentary, furious uptempo interpretation of garage – but Bad Religion’s USP was to always insert light amongst the shade.
Though ahead of their time, there was no mistaking Bad Religion’s outlook: the album sleeve features downtown Los Angeles, with the title questioning rampant post-modern capitalism and its attendant requirement for corporate greed, war, class inequality, plus the moral turpitude of fundamental Christianity, themes the band would revisit time and time again throughout their ensuing career.
As a side note, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? is possibly the only hardcore punk album to feature piano playing, thanks to Greg Graffin’s experience on his mum’s spinet.
3. No Control (1989)
With Suffer, Bad Religion intuitively knew they’d delivered something not only impressive, but removed from what anyone else was doing at the time. So their only option with No Control was to increase the pressure, forging a follow-up even harder and faster, with even shorter songs.
Released just 14 months after Suffer, No Control rapidly sets out its stall with opener Change of Ideas, then delivers banger after banger with the title track, Automatic Man, I Want To Conquer The World, You... songs still played live to this day. There's absolutely zero tolerance for fucking about, the band seemingly starting new tracks while still disposing of the previous ones. It's a breathless, beautiful thing.
2. The Process of Belief (2002)
The beneficially competitive songwriting partnership of Graffin and Gurewitz has always been most successful following a break from each other, as the guitarist told us following the release of the group's 12th studio album.
With 24-year-old prodigy Brooks Wackerman, the band’s most talented and proficient drummer, replacing Bobby Schayer and the songwriting partnership of Greg and Brett reunited and scaling new heights, The Process of Belief was SoCal melodic punk come full circle.
Opener Supersonic gives both barrels, the tender Broken features arresting lyrics of heartbreak, and Kyoto Now! is the greatest ever climate change protest song. Then there's the achingly poignant Sorrow, which was adopted by US radio as a post-9/11 anthem. Composed by Gurewitz, despite being unrelated to the terrorist atrocity (the guitarist was actually mixing the track when the news broke), the treatise on the Biblical story of Job was entirely appropriate to the helplessness of the era.
A true return to form, and the fact that Bad Religion delivered it as they returned to their spiritual home, Epitaph, was simply the icing on the cake.
1. Suffer (1988)
Like a breath of fresh Californian Pacific seaboard coastal air, Suffer revitalised the otherwise generic and stale West Coast hardcore scene of the late 80s. Despite the overwhelmingly pessimistic theme of the album title, song titles and the vast majority of its lyrical content, Suffer still sounds incredibly upbeat, bright, and full of promise, even more so in 1988 when it was set against the exhausting misanthropic nihilism of D-beat hardcore and anarcho-punk revivalism.
Punk rock had finally grown up.
As Fat Mike of NOFX correctly surmised, this was "the record that changed everything." Despite initial distribution snagging, Suffer was a slow-release timebomb that continued to smoulder throughout the US and Europe well into late 1989, even beyond the release of its follow-up No Control, released just over a year later. From the opening throttle of You Are (The Government) to its closer, the curiously uplifting Pessimistic Lines, it’s punk rock perfection.
“You never know what’s going to work until you try it,” Greg Graffin told writer Ian Winwood in Smash!: Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX, and the '90s Punk Explosion. “And I do think there’s a real freedom of expression that comes through on Suffer.”